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slaves muslim descent new orleans jazz origins west african music
slaves muslim descent new orleans jazz origins west african music

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Published by: tifl on Sep 01, 2009
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Oxford Improvisers: Assetshttp://www.oxfordimprovisers.com/oxfordimprovisers/assets.aspx?assetid=30(1 of 4)9/1/2009 11:48:34 AM
Origins Revisited
Pat Thomas
At the beginning of the 21st century, a small group of scholars are questioning some of the majorassumptions concerning the origins of jazz. Sylviane A.Diouf, a leading scholar on the history of AfricanMuslims in America, has suggested that a lot of the influences that helped in the development of bluesand jazz have come from West African Muslim musical practices. She cites the similarity between theAfrican recitation of the ahzan, the Muslim call to prayer, and the ornamentation found in Blues andJazz.The pioneer in establishing the West African Muslim presence among the slaves who came to Americais Allen Austin. His book
African Muslims in Antebellum America: a source book,
published in 1984 andupdated 1997, gives documentary evidence for 75 African Muslims all from West Africa who were takenas slaves between 1730 and 1860. These include Umar ibn Said who wrote "the only extantautobiography by an American slave in Arabic" (p. 129). He also mentions two men who created Muslimcommunities on the Georgia Sepelo and St Simon Islands: Bilali Muhammad and Salih Bilali. These twoimams helped to create the Gullah culture that appeared on these islands. They were the plantationmanagers as well as being spiritual leaders. Both came from Timbo Futa in Senegal, both were from theFulbe tribe and spoke Fula and Arabic. Both of these languages are found in the black English languagecalled Gullah which was found to be the language spoken by black descendants of the Islands. Amongthese descendants are the children of Bilali, who were able to speak English, French, Fula, Gullah andArabic.Bilali was a striking figure from accounts given since he always wore a fez and a long coat (jubba) andwas even buried with his prayer mat! Jazz historians today like to mention the Gullah community:"In south Carolina the prevailing language among whites was English and the prevailing languageamong the African American population was Gullah. In purely linguistic terms, this was a ‘Creole’language, in other words a product of the colonial milieu, which in this case was an amalgam of thelanguages of white and black settler… …It is tempting to use this linguistic model as a metaphor for thedevelopment of African-American music" (p. 25 A New History of Jazz)Even though Shipton is aware of a connection between language and African-American music, he isunaware of the fact that West Africans also spoke Arabic, for if he had been he would not have beenwondering "just what does the word Jazz mean?" (p. 2). In fact in a book of over 900 pages the Islamicculture of West Africans is never mentioned, in spite of the fact that historically it is well known slaveswere taken from areas that had African Muslims. Shipton is not alone in this omission: Frank Tirro in hisbook
Jazz a History,
second edition 1997, in a book of over 800 pages also fails to mention AfricanMuslims in spite of the fact that he also mentions Gullah culture:“Along the eastern seaboard of the United States, from Maryland to Florida, there are a series of Islandsseparated from the mainland by rivers and swamps. Many are fertile and were once the sites of largecotton plantations worked by slaves. The Islands are inhabited by Gullahs, sometimes called geechies,descendants of ex-slaves who spoke a black English dialect called Gullah and who were among the last| | | | | | | | |
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group of blacks bought to this country in bondage from West Africa. Even today these islands maintainmany African languages and English. In anecdotal reports James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion Smith andothers on the New York scene attest to the connection of Gullah customs and music to Jazz” (Tirro, p.7)Again there is said to be a connection between Gullah and jazz but he fails to see the link betweenAfrica and Islam. Salih Bilali and Bilali Muhammad were from the Fulbe tribe in West Africa. “The Fulbewere proud of their Quranic schools and their ability to read and write for the greater glory of God and ofthe Fulbe perhaps. Their Literacy included writing Arabic and their own language using the phoneticArabic letters” (Austin p.91). Now that we have established African Muslims were present in America,and also have documental evidence that Africans wrote in Arabic, we can now see that Jass or Jazz ismore likely to be of Arabic origin, and the word can be found in any English-Arabic dictionary. In theHans-Wehr dictionary of Arabic we find the word on page 125: it is the word for espionage and to lookinto a matter deeply. The fore Tirro’s assertion that “scholars have systematically examined all thesuggestions and viewpoints advanced in the literature from 1917 and 1958. The resulting study,although fascinating, leaves the reader stranded” (Tirro, p.97) would suggest they had failed to see themost obvious one: African Muslims.The reason the Islamic influence is not recognized is due to the fact that all jazz historians areinfluenced by the Gunther Schuller model of jazz origins. On page 15 of
Early Jazz 
, Schuller tells us“Historians, ethnographers and anthropologists have provided us with sufficient evidence of the fact theAfrican negro whether as a slave in America and as a native within the social structure of Islamic society(as in certain parts of West and Central Africa) is remarkably adept at accommodating his beliefs andcustoms to his new surroundings.” Yet he spends the rest of the text refuting Ernest Borneman’s theoryof Islamic musical influences being a major resource for the Slaves of West African descent.Ernest Borneman, who had a background in anthropology and was a jazz critic, correctly suggested that jazz had connections with the Islamic cultures of Africa and of Islamic Spain which were transmitted toAmerica. Historians such as Julia Riberia, who wrote the definitive book published in 1929,
Music in Ancient Arabia and Spain 
, show how the Islamic period in Spain that lasted for nearly a thousand yearshelped to create European classical music. In addition George Henry Farmer, an expert on Islamicmusic, was the first person to see a connection between the word Jass and Arabic, and suggested thatWest African Muslims transmitted the word to America. Both of these sources were used by Borneman.Sadly Schuller did not investigate these sources of Borneman, and neither has any jazz historian to thisday!Jazz historians are keen to mention the West African Griots, as a link to the origins of Jazz and Blues,but seem to be unaware of the fact that the Jelis (Griots) are West African Muslims. Eric Charry’s book
Mande Music 
is the most comprehensive book to be found on the Jeli (Griot) tradition. In his introductionhe tells us that the West African Mande (or Mali) empire was established in the 13th century by thelegendary Warrior leader Sinjata and his allies.“At its height in the 14th to 16th century, the Mande empire extended from Gao in the East andTimbuktu in the North all the way to the Atlantic coast in the West... Their descendants today make upsignificant parts of the population of many West African countries: in Mali and Guinea, they are knownas Maninka (or Malinke in French writing) in Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau they are knownas Mandinka (or Mandingo in British writings)” (Mande Music, p1).The music of the Mande is inextricably linked with Islam: “Islam has shaped and been shaped by localcultures wherever it has taken root. Certain Muslim holidays are case for celebration or rest, certainlocal repertories have broadened to include pieces dedicated to Muslim leaders, and certain singing andplaying styles bear marks of Arab Muslim sensibilities. During Ramadan (Mandinka Sankolo: fastingmonth), the month of fasting from sunup to sundown, marriages are not held and drummers do not play.But the end of Ramadan (Arabic Eid al Fitr: Mandinka Salikolo: lesser feast) is cause for celebration andmusic. The biggest Muslim festival known as tabaski (ar Eid al Adha: greater feast). CommemoratesAbraham's sacrificing of a lamb and marks the end of the month long pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). It is amajor time for music making, with drummers often making the rounds in their villages, going fromcompound to compound. The spectacular music making at the fourteenth century court of Malidescribed by Ibn Battuta took place on the feast days Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Ahda, The vast majority of
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Jelis are well educated in Islam, and many are devout Muslims, quotations from the Koran are commonin their narrations and singing, and Pieces dedicated to religious leaders (such as Taara, dedicated to alHajj Umar Tal) Sufi and other Muslim leaders are occasionally the subjects of popular songs... From atechnical perspective, music of the Jelis has been influenced by some of the musical aesthetics carriedin the recitation of the Koran that is bound up in Islam wherever it travels. Two noteworthy features thatsometimes distinguish the music of Sahelian Muslim peoples from some of their non-Muslim neighboursinclude monophony, where in vocal harmony is largely absent, and a high degree of melodicornamentation. Although it is possible that these tendencies might predate the coming of Islam, they doconform to Arab musical practices and help to bind a large musical cultural area” (Charry, p. 22-23).It is quite clear Schuller was unaware of these features in West African music, as is demonstrated in hiscriticism of Borneman, for suggesting a connection with the Hispano-Arabic music of Spain. “It is true ofcourse that many of the slaves came in contact with Spanish music in their stay of weeks or months oryears in the Caribbean. It is also likely that the slaves found in the music of Spanish and Portuguesesettlers similarities (to African music) in the handling of rhythms and timbre: but I suppose that thesewere mostly superficial coincidental similarities, for it is a fairly undisputed fact, that African and Arabic-Islamic-Spanish rhythms are two entirely different disciplines, the former polyrhythmic the lattermonorhythmic in essence. Mr. Borneman thus seems too hasty when he concludes that ‘Creole musichad a head start over the development of spirituals blues and other forms of Anglo-African music.’” (p.59). But in fact it is Schuller who is “too hasty”, since West African Muslim musical practices do use bothdisciplines. Other evidence is found in John Storm Roberts excellent book on African and Afro-Americanmusic called
Black Music of two worlds 
. He tells us “the African approach to singing includes the use ofa large number of ornamental devices of which one of the most common is the slide up to the first noteof a phrase, and the slide down off the last note. Notes are often bent and some songs are almostshouted rather than sung. Singing techniques vary from tribe to tribe and the use of decoration insinging is connected with Arab-Berber influences in Islamic Africa” (p.12). Therefore these links withIslamic Arab-Spanish music are not coincidences, as Schuller claims, but are links made due to theinfluence of a common Islamic musical aesthetic, as Yusuf Ali tells us “in Morocco the Black gnawaperform a large part of the traditional music. They are also found in Tunisia and are known among theWolof people of Gambia as Griots” (p. 288 Music of the Moors in Spain).
This acknowledgement of the West African Islamic influence is sadly still lacking in jazz history books inspite of the fact that it was clearly there, as new evidence shows. Therefore the current model used toexplain the origins of jazz needs to be revised.
Servants of Allah African Muslims enslaved in the Americas 
Sylviane A. Diouf, New York UniversityPress, 1998
African Muslims in Antebellum America 
Allan D. Austin, Routledge, 1997
Golden Age of the Moor 
edited by Ivan Van Sertima, Transaction publishers, 1993
Mande Music 
Eric Charry, the University of Chicago Press, 2000
The Music of the Arabs 
Habib Hassan Touma, Amadeus Press, 1996
A History of Arabian Music to the XIII Century 
George Henry Farmer, Luzac and co 1967 first editionpublished 1929
Music in Ancient Arabia and Spain 
Julian Ribera, Da Capo Press 1970, first edition published 1929
Black Music of Two Worlds 
John Storm Roberts, Allen Lane Penguin books, 1973

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